The Life of John Milton Part II
1639. Power, parties, politics, pamphleteering, and one Mary Powell. Milton has returned to England in the midst of civil war. The power of one political party wavers, and the other takes control. One king loses favor and his head, and a usurper rules for ten years. Yet Milton continues writing, first for the Presbyterian movement and then under employment to Oliver Cromwell.
On his own time, Milton wrote about his poetic intentions in his notebooks. Contemplating subject matter for a great English work, he wrote about the idea of an epic about King Arthur and listed nearly a hundred stories from biblical and British history as potential subjects for a drama. However, Milton could not turn his back on civil injustice. Putting aside his own creative ambitions to focus on prose—as he called it, the work of his left hand—he devoted himself to the betterment of his country, advocating the unorthodox belief in the freedom of speech with the means of the day, pamphlets.
Milton first became involved in the religious dispute on the Presbyterian side by writing a series of pamphlets in 1641-42. As well as being learned and intellectual, they are filled with clever and amusing rhetoric, satire, and invective. His views here are clearly Puritan and attack the idea of Catholic idolatry that he and others felt was increasingly present in the Church of England. At this stage Milton hadn't rejected monarchism, and he believed that the Anglican bishops were a threat to England and to the king.
In 1642 after a brief courtship, Milton married, perhaps unwisely, the seventeen-year-old Mary Powell, a girl from an unintellectual, royalist family. Her family supported the Stuart kings and the Anglican Church, and it's truly a wonder that they were ever married. Apparently, Mary left him after a short time and returned to her family for three years. Divorce was never mentioned, and due to the civil war, she was unable to safely return to London until 1645, the same year Milton published his first volume of poetry. Milton and Mary were reconciled, and they had three daughters and a son who died in infancy. Mary herself died in childbirth in 1652.
Soon after Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Milton was appointed secretary to the Council of the State of the Commonwealth, a committee led by Cromwell. This was the beginning of years of busywork. Every document of government business was transcribed into Latin before it was filed as a permanent record, and Milton was most adept. For whatever reason within a few years, Milton gradually began going blind. Though his government work gradually ceased, his writing did not. His vocation was more clear than ever.
On His Blindness
WHEN I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
*My thanks to Katherine Fletcher of Christ's College, Cambridge, and her lively biography written for http://darknessvisible.christs.cam.ac.uk/miltons_life.html.
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